Theoretical economist Martin Machay says that he doesn't enjoy doing the same things as hundreds of others. This is one reason why he took up a discipline that only a few dozen people in the world know anything about. He studies the politics of space – to be precise, its economics. He wrote his dissertation on this subject and is now completing his thesis on it.
It is tempting to joke about the name of the discipline, and Machay admits that in the early days he had to deal with occasional comments from colleagues and friends. “I was asked if I could speak Klingon," he says, in reference to the fictional language used by characters in Star Trek.
Machay is not interested in communication between civilizations elsewhere in the universe, however; his concerns are very practical. For instance, he wants to establish the impact of space research on economics and politics.
Large sums of money are being invested in this field. “In 2012 the United States spent fifty billion dollars on national space programmes," explains Machay, a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Economics and Administration.
Space exploration has been important for the United States since at least the 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik programme and the Americans followed this up with their Apollo programme that took astronauts to the Moon for the first time.
“In those days space technology made giant strides in a short time," says Machay. “Since then the Americans have continued to take great pride in their space programme, although how much it all costs and where the money actually goes is not widely known."
US space exploration is a political issue thanks to great public interest and the funds expended on it. Every administration has made its mark on the space programme: Bill Clinton had the International Space Station remodelled in its present form and insisted on involving the Russians in its construction and operation; George Bush invested in its military applications; Barack Obama has reversed many of Bush's decisions and focused on reducing transport costs.
No great vision on the horizon
In the past certain countries had one great aim for space travel – to get to the Moon. According to Machay, today there are no such great visions. Instead, individual states try to realize a number of smaller ones. Much has changed since the Cold War era.
“The age of prosperity and democracy has not been good for space exploration in general," he says. “We can see this from the fact that – if the media are to be believed – the lead is being taken by China, which has sent technology to the Moon and has a vision of a Mars landing."
Having said this, Machay immediately refutes the image of China as a superpower: its expenditure on space exploration is not even a tenth of that of the United States.
So America, Russia and China are the three leaders in the field. Is it not a pity for Machay and his research that they aren't closer to home? Not all, apparently: it is no problem for him to get the data he needs through the Internet, and besides, many interesting things are happening in Europe.
For many years France was considered the leading European player in the politics of space; among other facilities, it operates the Guiana Space Centre, from which the rockets of the European Space Agency (ESA) are launched. However, Machay's research has shown that the nucleus of support for European space policy comes from a neighbouring country, Germany.
Although little is known about the activities of the Czech Republic in this field, they are not insignificant. Of course, smaller countries are not interested in developing their own space shuttles for astronauts. “Smaller countries have a service role," explains Machay. “They take care of the things the larger countries have no interest in."
Europe's tasks include the building of satellites and other equipment and the development of new materials that will be sent into space. One of the many states involved in this is the Czech Republic, which early this year sent a device of its own into the cosmos. More information on the activities of the Czech Republic in space can be found at: www.czechspaceportal.cz.